Don’t waste the reader’s time: avoiding the one-way street
Similarly, you can be unhappy with a story because you feel the story is reinforcing sexist, or homophobic, or racist, or ableist myths. You can call out the problem when a story pushes that agenda. You can express your disappointment. You can organize a boycott. But again, pointing out problems in a narrative should not turn into harassment of the people involved.
In this case it was actually two hordes of idiots harassing the writer. One group were angry because they thought the writer was pushing a relationship between two characters they didn’t want together. The other group were angry because the relationship wasn’t going where it had “clearly” been implied it was going.
Readers aren’t the only ones who can be jerks. Writers can disrespect their audience; they can make mistakes, abuse the reader’s trust, they can cheat and exploit their audience. Which isn’t to say that the writer owes any reader or group of readers a specific outcome, or a particular plot resolution. But as writers we must always remember Niven’s Law for Writers: It is a sin to waste the reader’s time.
In the simplest sense that means that as writers we owe the reader our best professional effort. We tell the story as best we can. No story and no draft will ever be perfect, so we can’t get hung up on revising until it is, but we don’t turn in a half-assed effort.
I want to make a brief digression here. Most of my fiction writing and publishing has been in small press and amateur publications. Occasionally, when as an editor I have given writers aspiring to those publications feedback and requests for re-writes, a writer has pushed back. “You can’t hold me to professional standards, I’m not getting paid!” I didn’t quibble over the fact that technically, because we were giving them free copies of the publication if we used their story it meant they were getting paid, instead I said, “I’m publishing to professional readers. They pay for the privilege of reading my zine. And even though what they pay barely covers the costs of printing, and doesn’t provide any monetary compensation to you, or me, or the copy editors, or the layout specialist, the reader is still paying.” Of course they didn’t have to make re-writes if they didn’t want to. But if they didn’t, I wasn’t going to publish the story, because I wasn’t going to ask my readers to spend their time or money on a story I didn’t think was ready.
To get back to what we mean when we say it is a sin to waste the reader’s time, in a deeper sense that means playing fair. If there are mysteries for the reader to try to solve, you can’t withhold information. Obscure it amongst a bunch of other description? Sure. Distract the reader by dangling a red herring in the same scene? Also perfectly reasonable, but you can’t simply not show the reader vital information.
Also, don’t spring surprises on the reader merely for the sake of shock. It’s easy to think that surprises and shocks and twists are the only way to create suspense, but that’s wrong. Suspense happens when the reader cares about your character. If you create characters the reader identifies with and cares about, you can create suspense out of anything that the character cares about. You create that caring by treating the reader with respect and showing the reader the hearts of your characters.
Don’t lead the reader down a painful emotional path without giving them a pay-off. If you make the reader care about the protagonist and then allow the reader to see a horrible thing happen to the protagonist, don’t skip past the messy emotional fallout. You don’t have to show blood and gore—often graphic descriptions of violence are more boring than engaging—but show us how the bad thing affected the characters. Let the reader experience their sorrow or anger or triumph. Don’t skip that to get to the next plot twist.
When you tell a story, you are asking the reader to give you their time and attention. Make sure that the journey your tale takes them on is worth it.
“It is a little out of touch to presume that someone wants to follow your every observation and insight over the course of hundreds of pages without any sort of payoff. That’s why writing isn’t a one-way street. You have to give something back: an interesting plot, a surprise, a laugh, a moment of tenderness, a mystery for the reader to put together.” — Christopher Bollen